In the winter weather, wildlife might not be on your mind, but the folks at Ernie Miller Park and Nature Center would like to change that. Every Sunday through the end of February, they’re hosting family programs featuring live animals.
The Sunday Family Series is a 45-minute program for all ages. With a variety of themes ranging from Kansas symbols to misunderstood animals, there’s something for everyone.
Andrea Joslin, outdoor education manager for Ernie Miller, said programs that feature birds of prey or snakes are usually popular.
The primary goal of the programs is “connecting people to nature so they have a better understanding of it, maybe introducing them to an animal, talking about what sometimes people might be afraid of, what you don’t need to be afraid of,” Joslin said. “(We are) trying to make sure people appreciate nature, but you really have to have an understanding of it first to appreciate it.”
A recent program about owls drew 25 people, nearly full capacity.
“You don’t get to see those just anywhere. I think people just like seeing the birds of prey. They’re pretty majestic animals,” Joslin said.
Participants must pre-register, as COVID protocols are limiting the attendance at each program to 30 people. If not enough people register any particular week, the center will cancel the program.
Alongside park police officers, park naturalists and volunteers also lead the range of programs. Johnson County Park Police Officer Lanae Rench-Vopat is teaching the next one on Kansas symbols Jan. 30.
“It’s really good to have a basic knowledge of our state, especially if you don’t get out much beyond Johnson County. The nature is so varied across state,” Rench-Vopat said. “From eastern to western Kansas, there’s so many different environments and types of animals and ecosystems. Being able to talk with kids about how cool Kansas can be, I think, is really fun, to really instill pride about where we live.”
When possible, they’ll bring live animals into the mix, so Rench-Vopat will often show ornate box turtles, the official state reptile, during the Kansas segment.
If live animals aren’t available, instructors show artifacts such as a bison skull.
“They can see just how big a bison is compared to a person,” Rench-Vopat said.
Presenters also take these programs into local schools. One of the newest ones focuses on misunderstood animals and socio-emotional learning.
“It brings kids’ emotions together with how animals might feel in a situation. So if an animal is scared of a predator, how it acts, and we relate it to the children and how something might scare them, and they might react,” Rench-Vopat said.
After the program, the park’s trails are available for walks if you’re willing to brave the chilly weather. Snow on the ground combined with bare trees provides a great opportunity to see animal tracks, Joslin said.
The Sunday programs at Ernie Miller will be at 2 p.m. every Sunday in through February. Tickets are $4 per person, and pre-registration is required. To sign up, go to jcprd.com/328/Ernie-Miller-Park-Nature-Center.